[Some of] My Favorite Books of 2011

Below is a list of some of the best books I read this year. It isn’t comprehensive or exhaustive. It isn’t a countdown or in any particular order. They are all great books in their own right and hopefully you’ll find something you like. If you have any questions, feel free to let me know. Enjoy.
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The End of Evangelicalism?: Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission; Towards an Evangelical Political Theology by David E. Fitch

Reading that title you may think you’re getting yourself into another ranting on politics and the Moral Majority or why you shouldn’t have voted for Obama. But you’d be horribly wrong. Rather than writing another piece on the oft-thought coalescence of Republican politics and Evangelical theology, Fitch hits us with a combination of Zizekian cultural/ideological philosophy and the practices and beliefs of Evangelicalism. He deals with the center beliefs of the movement (institution), namely the “inerrant Bible”, the “decision for Christ”, and “the Christian nation”. Instead of merely deconstructing them or pejoratively dismantling these beliefs and their resulting practices, Fitch carefully, through Zizek, brings out the reality these things have created and their “empty politics”. Basically, he is asking are these rallying points helping or hindering the mission of God? Or, in other words, are they creating a politic (a group of people) that is embodying the person and work of Jesus? He thinks not.

Not leaving us hanging in the despair of our emptiness, he then builds his case for a fullness of belief and practice that can carry us into the future as the people of God.  This is the bread and butter of the book. For those searching for a new way of doing and being the church, this section will invigorate you. Having been able to spend some time with Fitch over the past few years, I can tell you that he is not a mere theorist, but is actually putting his ideas into action. Pick this book up if you want an engaging analysis of where Evangelicalism is at and where it can and should be. For more on David Fitch’s thoughts check out his blog: Reclaiming the Mission.

Sun of Righteousness Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth by Jurgen Moltmann

Moltmann is quickly turning into one of my favorite theologians. He has been researching, writing, and teaching for quite some time resulting in a large body of work. This book is a compilation of over ten years of lecturing and, as such, is a deep and broad selection of writings. Known as the “theologian of hope”, Moltmann weaves this thread of hope through his discussion “of the Christian future centered in God, God’s reign, and God’s justice.” The book is divided up into four sections: The Future of Christianity, The God of Resurrection, God is Righteousness and Justice, and God in Nature. Each one of them is thoroughly trinitarian and holistic. Probably my favorite quality of his writings is his detailed account of the “big picture” of God’s story. For the more conservative reader, he will challenge you and push you to broaden your horizons, like he does mine. Great, great stuff here.

A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight

Here is another full, holistic, big picture type of book that doesn’t get carried away with academic ramblings. McKnight brings us a thorough piece centering on atonement and its ramifications. Not satisfied with one particular theory of atonement, McKnight searches and writes about a theory that acts as a “golf bag able to hold all the clubs [theories]”. Beginning with the story of God in its entirety, he brings us through the major parts of this story, its metaphors and images, and what we as the Church are to do about it. This theology isn’t mere abstract thought; it is a living, practical theology that must be lived out. Its title gives it away, but he concludes that atonement isn’t simply a personal, individualistic event, but it is something that creates community and this community is to act and live out this atonement. For more from McKnight check out his blog at Jesus Creed.

The Justice Project by Brian McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Ashley Bunting Seeber

For those of us who have grown up reading the Bible for the personal, relevant, and applicable for our own spiritual piety, this book reorients us around the reading of Scripture prophetically. This doesn’t mean “seeing into the future”, but rather reading the Bible, culture, and life in general with an eye towards justice. It’s interesting when you begin to look at the writings contained within the Bible and the tradition handed down to us with open eyes and ears to the treatment of the poor, widowed, and orphaned. Justice screams out as the God of justice calls the people of God to carry forth this justice.

The book itself is a collection of essays written by theorists and practitioners from both North and South America. One of the beauties of this book is its full spectrum of topics, not just those concerned with strict biblical or theological studies. From ecology to trade to the suburbs to the slums to Native American relations with the U.S., these essays fill us in on the justice being sought by those firmly rooted in Christ. Justice isn’t solely a “liberal” agenda; it is the agenda of the God incarnated in Jesus and carried forth by the Spirit. Great, great book for those seeking to be socially attuned.

When the Church was A Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community by Joseph H. Hellerman

I wanted to get this book when I was doing my Masters thesis, but didn’t get to it. Then this year I saw a few people comment on it being one of their paradigm shifting books. So, I got it and wasn’t disappointed. Unlike some of the other books mentioned here, this could be read by anyone, with or without a formal background in theology. Hellerman takes us back to the original intents of Jesus’ gathering of a community: he was reorganizing the people of God as the family of God.

In our current culture of division, separation, and individualistic priorities, Hellerman makes the countercultural claim that the group comes first. It is from within the group the individual finds her identity not vice versa. This was an understood and lived out maxim in the ancient world, and still is today in many non-Western cultures, including Jesus and his disciples. It is from here that it becomes evident that Jesus’ actions, parables, and purposes were to create a community which deemed itself first and foremost a family and all that came with it.

One of the big insights for me was the usage of sibling terminology within the Bible. In ancient Mediterranean culture, the closest relationships weren’t parent to child or husband and wife. No, the closest relationship was the tie you had to your brothers and sisters. Why? Because you both shared the same father. From this, we begin to see why both Jesus’ and Paul’s usage of sibling terms was key for understanding the nature and mission of the church.

If you’re looking for a great study on the origins of the church and how you might begin to shift things in your own church, pick this up.

Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love by Mark Scandrette

I’m not going  to lie: I didn’t actually finish this book yet. But from what I did read, it is great. This isn’t another theorist looking to push an agenda that has no practical foundation. This is a book about actually living out the Christian life.

Scandrette does something I’ve seen few do: he actually gives practical ways of living out the experiments he discusses in this book. Imagine that?! They aren’t things that could work; he’s actually done them within communities of people. There are multiple examples of long and short term experiments, large and small group experiments, and many more. With a focus on actual, rubber to the road discipleship, this book has been on many “Best Books of 2011” lists. Pick it up and you’ll think so too.

Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks by Dwight Friesen

Here’s another great little book on the connectivity and sociality of our world. Basing his work on the nature and work of the Trinity, Friesen takes us through a study of community and the ever networking essence of it all. Through nature and technology we see how things don’t exist in solitude; no, everything is connected and has an effect in one way or another. If this is so outside of the church, it must be so inside as well.

This book is gives great insights in how we all find ourselves in community and how it both effects us and we effect it. If you’re looking for something with theological and sociological reflection, pick this up.

The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann

Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar known for his writing and teaching. This book was originally published in 1978, but is still as powerful now as it was then.

Tracing his way through the exodus of Israel from bondage to the empire of Egypt to the prophetic movement of Jesus, Brueggemann advocates for the alternative-ness of the people of God. One of the fundamental occupations of the alternative community is its prophetic stance against the dominating culture, typically founded on and in the language and reality of empire. He states,

The task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.

This isn’t a mere academic book, but is a book that has true social ramifications. It is actual theology because it is public theology. More than that, because it is a book focused on transforming our imaginations, it bypasses the aim at our heads and aims for our hearts. This has been a classic in many circles and now I know why. If you want to read an engaging, out-of-box book on how to be an alternative community, get this book.

Organic Leadership: Leading Naturally Right Where You Are by Neil Cole

Moving beyond the criticisms of the institutional church, Neil Cole offers a book on leadership that takes into consideration that which has come before us with an eye for what will lead us into the future. He isn’t content with another church leadership book, but rather invites us into the natural/organic ways of leadership within the kingdom of God. He takes on deep questions and traditioned answers to point his readers to a way of being the church that multiplies itself through discipleship.

One of the main things I took away from this book was the understanding of growing the church through actual relationships with those who don’t identify themselves as Christians. Rather than growing a church through cannibalizing other churches, our prayer ought to be to seek out where God is already work in our communities and join him there. A practical tip Cole offers is to set an alarm on your phone to go off at 10:02 everyday. This time corresponds with Luke 10:2 where Jesus tells his disciples to beg God for workers for the harvest. It is through this simple practice of prayer that I’ve found myself not worrying (as much) about the numerical growth of our church family.

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri Nouwen

This is another classic that I finally read this year. It is short, yet powerful in its depth. Nouwen gives us a brief piece on Christian leadership and the avoidance of what is typically seen as leadership. As one who lived with and ministered to those with mental and physical disabilities, Nouwen brings a developed and different angle to leadership.

The book is the story of Nouwen’s invitation to speak on Christian leadership and the subsequent events that took place. Instead of traveling and speaking alone he brought with him Bill Van Buren, one of the mentally disabled people he lived with. The insights gained from this time are invaluable, especially in light of the fact that I too work everyday with elementary students with special needs. Instead of the typical power and influence leaders seek after, Nouwen challenges us to go “from relevance to prayer”;  “from popularity to ministry”; “from leading to being led”. This is a humble, intuitive reflection on leadership that anyone and everyone should read.

The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission by Lesslie Newbigin

Another classic – I’m noticing a pattern. Here the topic is mission and how the triune God is at work in God’s world. Rooting everything in the Trinity, Newbigin challenges us to see how each person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are active in the missio dei. There is so much greatness about this book, that I don’t even know where to begin. If you are at all wondering about the nature and essence of God, the Church, and humanity please pick this book up. I had heard how good this book is and I was not disappointed.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has written many New York Times best sellers and this is one of them. The premise of this book is that the often overlooked small tweaks and changes we make to television shows, neighborhoods, and sneakers are the factors that push social epidemics over “the tipping point”.  So what is the difference between Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer that makes one “stickier” than the other? What makes kids attentive to one over the other? Or why does taking the graffiti off of a subway car seem to lessen the wave of violence in a major city? Does a house with a broken window send a subtle yet strong message in a small neighborhood plagued with problems?

The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context are the three laws Gladwell explores throughout the content of this book. If you are preoccupied with studying viruses, social change, or perhaps, I don’t know, church planting you should read this and see what it takes to push things over the tipping point.

New Monasticism: What it Has to Say to Today’s Church by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
This is a book about what it means to be Christian as citizens of the world’s last remaining superpower at the beginning of the third millennium.
So writes Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in the beginning of his book. This is not a book about escaping this world or setting up a community to violently rage against the empire. Rather, it is a book about resurrection and the resurrection of the church.  It is about remembering our forebears who told us nonviolence, charity, community, and celebration are revolutionary ways of living. And more importantly they are ways of living as the peculiar people of Jesus.
This short, yet provocative, book paints a picture of what it would like for small communities of people who center their lives around Jesus, each other, and those who are pushed to the margins of our society might look like. Combining liturgical living, missional expressions, and concern for contemporary issues that have a daily impact, I found this book both thought provoking and inspiring. For me, these are the things more people need to hear, read, and experience. Great book.
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2 thoughts on “[Some of] My Favorite Books of 2011

  1. Pingback: Reclaiming the Mission » The End of Evangelicalism? A Year Later: Thanks To Many

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